Monday, August 22, 2011

Reality Isn't Anybody's Bitch
— Threats and the Need for Pseudonyms


Why would you want to have a pseudonymous identity online? How about this reason: you and your family get threats from chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers because you show that it isn't caused by a virus. Same thing happens to researchers that show that the link between autism and vaccines is false1. Same thing happens to climate researchers that show warming is, in fact, happening and is, in fact, caused by human activity. Geologists, palaeontologists and archaeologists that publish research contradicting some religion or another. Physicians that provide abortions, contraceptives or even just medical reproductive advice to women.

People that get targeted in this way can't have a normal online life. If you ask them to use their real names online, they will get tracked, harassed and shouted down whatever they try to do. Their families, friends and anybody in public contact with them put themselves at risk for the same kind of harassment. And while most threats are idle, a few are serious enough; researchers and their family members do get injured and killed in attacks.

But even idle threats and harassment is a serious thing to those who get targeted. More and more, our public discourse is online. If you get shouted down, if you get chased out of that discourse, your right to participate — and our democratic systems are built on people having that right and using it — is compromised, and your viewpoint goes unheard. Googles shortsighted "real name" policy is ultimately very damaging, to Google itself, but also in a small way to the greater society.
Real names don't stop this harassment. Most people harassing scientists already do so openly, under their own name, proudly brandishing their membership in whatever cult or organization tells them to go ahead. Real names forces away the victims, not the attackers. Real names don't stop mob rule; it legitimises it.

But why are scientists targeted? This is not some temporary phase, and it's nothing new. It is because reality always wins.

You can't wish away reality. You can't ultimately ignore it. You can't bribe it off, reason with it or make a deal with it. You can curse it; condemn it as immoral and evil; you can make it illegal — but reality just Will. Not. Care. If your ideology or religion contradicts reality, well so much the worse for you and your ideas. Reality won't shift just to accommodate you.

We all live with a complicated structure of ideas, assumptions, prejudices, ideologies and notions of how the world around us ought to be. We are not likely to like people that come along and show that bits of that structure is wrong or even harmful.

The Chronic Fatigue sufferers wanted a cause — any cause — for their condition, even if it doesn't lead to a cure. A few no doubt want it to be a physical cause; mental conditions are still heavily stigmatized and it becomes so much easier to bear when you can point to something physical. A chronic virus infection is a great explanation. It fits a lot of the data and you finally get some kind of target; it points to things you can try and ways to alleviate symptoms, but most of all it gives you a coherent reason. We humans love to have reasons for things.

Then a bunch of researchers comes along and shows the data was wrong — there is no virus and we still have no clue. Some of the patients feel it really would have been better to leave things alone; a comforting lie is easier to live with than a disagreeable truth. Getting hope, then having it yanked away from you breeds a lot of resentment, denial and even, in a few already unstable individuals, threats of violence. And since reality is inviolate that anger, resentment and violence gets directed at the messenger instead.

People realize their cherished ideas are safe only as long as nobody shows they contradict reality. So the only way to keep their ideas safe is to drive out, shout down and silence those that would expose facts that contradict them.

This, I suspect, will become more and more common, and spread to more fields over time. There is hardly a field of research that doesn't contradict some dearly held beliefs of people somewhere. Through the internet those believers can now easily find each other — and find researchers that publish contradictory findings. It's much easier to disrupt somebody's online presence than their real life. At the same time, your online life is rapidly moving from an idle hobby to an important part of your core life.

I write very little about my work online as it is. If I were in any kind of sensitive field, I doubt I would write anything science-related under my own name at all.

#1 And in that case, the initial claim was deliberate paid-for fraud on the part of Andrew Wakefield, committed in order to bolster legal malpractice cases and to give a market opening to his own, alternative vaccine.

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